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What television shows would you consider to be "emotionally harrowing"?
April 20, 2014 8:35 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for TV shows to watch that can best be described as "emotionally harrowing." Devastating, harrowing, deeply upsetting. There are episodes where I should feel stunned during the credits, feel simply emotionally drained. Extremely complex, raw nerve feelings to sort through. A sucker punch to the gut. You know the deal. I'm not fooling around, give me the awful feelings, straight and undiluted. PLEASE no spoilers or specifics. Feel free to explain, just be abstract and vague!
posted by naju to Media & Arts (127 answers total) 98 users marked this as a favorite
Individual episodes of "Homicide," at least for me.
posted by wintersweet at 8:38 PM on April 20 [5 favorites]

The Wire.
posted by rhizome at 8:38 PM on April 20 [15 favorites]

Top of the Lake is a good recent one. Slow moving, but interesting.
posted by katypickle at 8:39 PM on April 20 [14 favorites]

True Detective.
posted by MadamM at 8:43 PM on April 20 [12 favorites]

This is very obvious, but I actually had to pause late episodes of Breaking Bad because I was getting so tense.
posted by SoftRain at 8:44 PM on April 20 [15 favorites]

Orphan Black.
posted by mudpuppie at 8:45 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]

Six Feet Under.
posted by divined by radio at 8:45 PM on April 20 [23 favorites]

I one hundred percent second Top of the Lake. BEYOND harrowing.
posted by leesh at 8:45 PM on April 20 [2 favorites]

Prime Suspect (English version)
posted by Blitz at 8:50 PM on April 20 [5 favorites]

Law and Order SVU and American Horror Story do it for me. Certain episodes of Battlestar Galactica and House of Cards hit me and my friends way harder than we expect too.
posted by Hermione Granger at 8:52 PM on April 20

I, Claudius.
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 8:53 PM on April 20 [4 favorites]

Also, the first season of the Killing. The first few episodes had me gut wrenched and sobbing. The payoff was disappointing for me though. But the first season as individual episodes, wow!
posted by katypickle at 8:54 PM on April 20 [6 favorites]

posted by ridogi at 8:54 PM on April 20 [10 favorites]

New Girl.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:56 PM on April 20 [7 favorites]

Black Mirror is not episodic but each is a surreal and terrifying experience.
posted by munchingzombie at 8:57 PM on April 20 [10 favorites]

Homeland but also the show that Homeland is loosely based on, Hatufin (Prisoners of War), was intense in my opinion. It's on Hulu. Also House comes to mind.
posted by kat518 at 9:00 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]

The Good Wife definitely has it's moments.
posted by youcancallmeal at 9:02 PM on April 20 [10 favorites]

posted by pompomtom at 9:03 PM on April 20 [13 favorites]

There was an excellent made-for-TV movie about Jonestown made in the 1980s.

Apparently, it's only available on a poorly-transferred DVD. I saw it over 20 years ago, and it still haunts me.
posted by Hatashran at 9:05 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]

Luther and The Killing both have some episodes like this.
posted by slidell at 9:08 PM on April 20 [2 favorites]

Certain episodes of Dexter, especially towards the end of season 4 (and for all I know, later seasons too but I stopped watching). You will need to have watched a fair amount of that season to get the full emotional impact though - don't just skip to the end, and don't try to find out what happens!
posted by pianissimo at 9:11 PM on April 20

posted by jacquilynne at 9:12 PM on April 20 [6 favorites]

Battlestar Galactica.

Not unlike a lot of shows mentioned here, though, the emotional impact doesn't happen in every episode, and is most effective when you've watched all the eps leading up to the gut-punch ones.
posted by rtha at 9:15 PM on April 20 [12 favorites]

posted by HoteDoge at 9:21 PM on April 20 [2 favorites]

Criminal Minds.

Some episodes of Doctor Who, esp. with the Ninth or Tenth Doctor. May be light weight for others, but there are some episodes that just get to me every single time.
posted by spinifex23 at 9:23 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]

I nearly forgot - Game of Thrones.
posted by spinifex23 at 9:27 PM on April 20 [6 favorites]

Shameless is billed as a comedy, but it will destroy you when you are not expecting it.

Also, Deadwood.
posted by mstokes650 at 9:32 PM on April 20 [2 favorites]

A different type of harrowing, but Louie is like a punch in the gut for me.
posted by politikitty at 9:36 PM on April 20 [4 favorites]

Millenium. Hannibal.
posted by thelonius at 9:37 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]

Agree on Criminal Minds, especially seasons 1-4. The one with the three girls who were soccer players.
posted by jgirl at 9:38 PM on April 20 [2 favorites]

Hannibal is perhaps the first show that I've wondered if I could keep watching, because it's is harrowing in many of the ways you describe.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:42 PM on April 20 [6 favorites]

Why does no one provide links in their answers anymore? Out of 31 answers in this thread, there are 3 with links. Anyway. Longford.
posted by mlis at 9:46 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]

This year's WrestleMania.

The Sopranos episode "Employee of the Month." I don't know if you walk away stunned, but your next sentence—extremely complex, raw nerve feelings to sort through—certainly applies.
posted by cribcage at 9:47 PM on April 20

posted by dame at 9:48 PM on April 20 [10 favorites]

Certain storylines in Boardwalk Empire-- oof!
posted by lovableiago at 9:54 PM on April 20

And seconding Millennium--it usually gets overshadowed by The X-Files (both were Chris Carter shows) but it gets CRA-ZY at times (especially season 2).
posted by lovableiago at 9:57 PM on April 20 [3 favorites]

Mostly in contrast to an otherwise light show, but the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "The Body" is heart-shredding.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 9:59 PM on April 20 [16 favorites]

I forgot to mention the particular episode of Doctor Who that gets me the most - Turn Left. It's an episode that is about what happens if Donna Noble, the companion, never met up with the Doctor.
posted by spinifex23 at 10:04 PM on April 20 [2 favorites]

Seconding "The Body" in season five of Buffy the Vampire slayer as being pretty harrowing, though the series itself isn't and without the back story, a lot of the context is lost. Torchwood series 3 was designed to be rough to watch but is pretty bad which undercut the impact. They Keep Killing Suzie from Torchwood series 1 was intense and makes a decent stand-alone introduction to the series. Misfits treats many of the cast members pretty roughly.
posted by Candleman at 10:08 PM on April 20 [2 favorites]

All of the Red John episodes of The Mentalist.
posted by quincunx at 10:09 PM on April 20

And the Jurassic Bark episode of Futurama.
posted by quincunx at 10:10 PM on April 20 [14 favorites]

Shameless is billed as a comedy, but it will destroy you when you are not expecting it.

I was going to suggest Shameless too. That link calls it a "comedy/drama," and I've seen it called a "dramedy." I just looked at the DVD box and it doesn't say "comedy" or "sitcom."
posted by John Cohen at 10:14 PM on April 20

I'm going to second Torchwood series 3, and nth certain episodes of Doctor Who.

I can't remember seeing any other TV show quite as powerful as that series of Torchwood.
posted by Juso No Thankyou at 10:14 PM on April 20 [2 favorites]

I just rewatched the pilot of Friday Night Lights and started crying halfway through.
posted by lalex at 10:15 PM on April 20 [4 favorites]

"The Walking Dead" at its best does this (See: Season 2, Episode 7 "Pretty Much Dead Already" & Season 4, Episode 14 "The Grove", which should have come with a coupon for a few free sessions of therapy for anyone who watched it).

"The Americans" hits this note consistently

Obvious choice, but Nthing "Breaking Bad", which I resented for airing on Sunday nights since it would frequently take me several hours to come down emotionally from an episode and would screw up my sleep patterns for the work week.
posted by The Gooch at 10:17 PM on April 20 [5 favorites]

Profit is unrelenting but the net effect is LOL and it is also a little dated.
In Treatment is one heavy therapy session after another.
posted by Trivia Newton John at 10:21 PM on April 20

If you don't mind anime, then Puella Magi Madoka Magica.

(Torrent, if you do such things)

Episode 3 will kick you in the gut, and after that nearly every episode will.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:31 PM on April 20 [3 favorites]

The Americans for sure. And check out Carnivale, it's an HBO show from 10 or so years ago and it was pretty creepy. Ahead of its time. Twin Peaks, if you've never seen it.

Supernatural does unsettling really well on occasion, especially in the first few seasons. Check out Dead in the Water or Faith from season 1. Or the pilot.
posted by fshgrl at 10:50 PM on April 20 [2 favorites]

Oh yeah. I'm seconding Torchwood.
posted by spinifex23 at 10:54 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]

The Wire and Breaking Bad, for sure.

I thought Damages was really creepy, and I couldn't stop watching.
posted by whoiam at 10:55 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]

ER had several episodes that I found to be emotionally harrowing. Love's Labor Lost and Be Still My Heart both left me feeling shocked and devastated. Sorry - on edit I thought I'd better add - don't click on the links if you don't want spoilers!
posted by kbar1 at 10:55 PM on April 20 [7 favorites]

posted by cosmic osmo at 10:59 PM on April 20 [2 favorites]

Can't believe The Walking Dead hasn't been mentioned as much. I actually tend to avoid zombie movies, but the writing on that show is top notch. It's extremely violent, maybe more than it should be, but since it's mostly zombies meeting their demise in various gruesome ways, I find it more darkly comical than anything.
posted by zardoz at 11:03 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]

The Australian series 'Love My Way' ran for three seasons and features some of the most gut-wrenching emotional scenes I've ever witnessed on a tv series.

Hannibal is an amazing show but so graphic I find it hard to recommend to most people I know who simply would not be able to get past the sheer gruesomeness of many episodes. There's so much more to the show than gore, though; it's well worth watching.
posted by h00py at 11:04 PM on April 20 [2 favorites]

Edge of Darkness ( the UK miniseries, not the execrable Mel Gibson movie).
posted by arha at 11:06 PM on April 20 [3 favorites]

Red Riding
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:07 PM on April 20 [5 favorites]

Breaking Bad and House of Cards for sure
posted by littlesq at 11:11 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]

Forgot to include "Orange is the New Black", which absolutely fits the criteria, in my first answer.
posted by The Gooch at 11:19 PM on April 20 [2 favorites]

Yes THE AMERICANS. Too few of you people are watching that.
posted by chrchr at 11:22 PM on April 20 [6 favorites]

House of Cards (Netfix Version)

and then if you truly understand politics and British history at all from the 80's and 90's...

The original BBC version of House of Cards - because the original was written by a Thatcher Gov't insider and HOLY SHIT was that dry (in a British sense) but totally real for a series running a few short 12 episodes..
posted by jbenben at 11:23 PM on April 20 [2 favorites]

Breaking Bad got more and more intense as it went along, to the point where my wife was hesitant to watch some of the later episodes because she didn't know if she could take any more. I got a co-worker into watching the show, and he messaged me one morning with "Are the rest of the episodes going to be so hard to get to sleep after?"
posted by azpenguin at 11:36 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]

Most definitely seconding Broadchurch (the original one). Even though it's excellent, I was actually hesitant to recommend it to people because I found it so wrenching.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:36 PM on April 20

The Danish series of "The Killings"--particularly season 2 although all of them are superb. The subtitles ( If you do not speak Danish) force a focus on the drama and, I think, add to ones involvement. What I think also adds to the intensity is the actors look like real people not caricatures.
posted by rmhsinc at 11:44 PM on April 20 [2 favorites]

Seconding Love My Way, recommended by h00py.

Wins my award for most harrowing, gritty few episodes in a tv series, ever.
posted by Salamander at 11:54 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]

If you don't mind going back a ways - I recently caught up with the original Alfred Hitchcock Presents series, and though some of it's a little hokey, a few episodes still succeed at chilling (me, anyhow).
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:03 AM on April 21

Seconding the "Love's Labor Lost" episode of ER. Holy goddamn fuck. And I say that as someone who's not really a fan and found ER to be pretty cheesy in general--take it from me, that episode is different.
posted by equalpants at 12:11 AM on April 21 [4 favorites]

House really does this for me. Especially whenever he goes another round with his drug addiction.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:13 AM on April 21 [2 favorites]

One more: The Singing Detective. An oldie but a goodie.
posted by fshgrl at 12:13 AM on April 21 [2 favorites]

Prime Suspect (the original British series with Helen Mirren).
posted by islander at 12:37 AM on April 21 [1 favorite]

You don't specify old or new TV shows, but goddamn if binge-watching Twin Peaks wasn't one of the most harrowing experiences of my life.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 12:59 AM on April 21 [2 favorites]

Silk Series 2 Episode 1

I had to stop watching Silk for a while after this episode.
posted by claptrap at 1:01 AM on April 21

Seconding the Be Still My Heart episode of ER. As soon as I saw ER, I thought "Oh, is that the one where..." And I clicked the link and it was. Even today, I can still hear that music in my head every time I think about that episode.
posted by Weeping_angel at 1:20 AM on April 21

Exactly how I felt watching the first two seasons of 24.
posted by WasabiFlux at 1:45 AM on April 21 [1 favorite]

The entire run of the Wonder Years, when watched together. It has numerous suckerpunches (made worse by the contrast of its thoughtful generally positive surrounding world) paced throughout, but damn, the last few of them. God.
posted by Mizu at 2:05 AM on April 21 [1 favorite]

People find it difficult to believe that a television series about the Danish political system could be So. Damn. Good but trust me, try Borgen and you'll be on the edge of your seat, especially after you've fallen in love with the Prime Minister (played by Sidse Babett Knudsen). I'll be adding the Borgen box set to my list for Santa next Christmas.

I'll go against the tide and suggest the BBC's Mayday (which went up against Broadchurch in the ratings). It doesn't have lovely David Tennant nor Saint Olivia Coleman (both fine actors) but it does have a subtle, nasty air about it that made me love and hate it at the same time. Sophie Okonedo and Lesley Manville are both outstanding and the final twist is a corker. Sadly, I think about 10 people in the UK saw that final episode because of Broadchurch but it's definitely well worth a watch.

I really loved Nurse Jackie and The Big C for drug addiction and cancer. Both have "OMG, did that really just happen?" moments and fit your criteria, I think.

I'm also thirding/fourthing/everythinging The Good Wife because we're in Season 5 now, it's even better than it was in Season 1 and I actually look forward to new episodes each week, something that doesn't happen much in these days of instant-access this & watch-everything-right-now that. I read the US spoilers every Monday to keep up to date, watch the episode a few weeks later in the UK and then reread the spoiler to make sure I've caught everything. Yep, it's that good.
posted by humph at 2:06 AM on April 21


I couldn't find the words to describe it but the Guardian helped me out with "unrelentingly grim" and "profoundly disturbing." Enjoy!
posted by billiebee at 2:06 AM on April 21 [5 favorites]

American Horror Story, with Connie Britton and Dylan McDermott, and the creepiest performance by Jessica Lange.

Excuse my language but this series with make you lose your shit. I felt sick to my stomach and just completely bad after watching the episode with the person in the leather body suit. It is very well written and made me want to watch more episodes, but I just can't because it is too much for me.

Check it out on Netflix.
posted by readygo at 2:11 AM on April 21 [2 favorites]

If you're ok with British 90s series, try Cracker.
posted by tinkletown at 3:58 AM on April 21 [4 favorites]

Definitely Breaking Bad. I had to take breaks after certain episodes because I felt so drained. It's not constantly harrowing, but when it is, it really means something. So you spend a lot of time waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it's never quite what you expect.
posted by futureisunwritten at 4:10 AM on April 21

I haven't finished watching the last two seasons, but parts of Treme, which is about rebuilding after Katrina, hit this note for me.
posted by eponym at 4:25 AM on April 21 [2 favorites]

If you can watch Season 4 of House and make it through the two final episodes with dry eyes, then you are probably a cyborg.
posted by Quilford at 4:35 AM on April 21 [2 favorites]

Nthing Orange is the New Black. I've seen three episodes and I'm having a very hard time getting back to it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:59 AM on April 21

Certain episodes of Downton Abbey. Episode 5 of Series 3 in particular comes to mind; between that one and that year's Christmas Special, I've had to put the whole show on hold for a while in my viewing queue.
posted by DingoMutt at 5:36 AM on April 21

My husband and I had to stop watching Hemlock Grove partway through after a particular episode that was too bleak for words.
posted by trunk muffins at 5:40 AM on April 21

Another vote for the Red Riding Trilogy, which will leave you hollowed-out, drained, stunned and depressed… and cackling with mirthless, soul-corroded laughter at the idea that some of the other suggestions in this thread (even Breaking Bad, I'd argue!) could even be mentioned in the same discussion as that show.

(I mean, just to be obnoxiously competitive about it.)
posted by oliverburkeman at 6:02 AM on April 21 [1 favorite]


Just watched first episode of the second series (Mo's Story) and had to go and have a bit of a lie down. Scroll the Wikipedia page no further than the "Episodes" heading to avoid spoilers.
posted by flabdablet at 6:19 AM on April 21

Definitely anything in the David Simon cannon. Granted I was on maternity leave with my first kiddo and living in Baltimore, but I had to take a break from watching The Wire for my own sanity. "The Subway" episode of Homicide: Life on the Street (along with most of that entire show's run) did the same.
posted by goggie at 6:29 AM on April 21

Ugh. The Fall, starring Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan. That freaking slayed me.
posted by BlahLaLa at 6:43 AM on April 21 [1 favorite]

The Killing, but I'd recommend skipping the first two seasons, which followed a single case and started well but ended in complete nonsense. Season three is a self-contained story that had me in a haze for hours afterward.
posted by sonmi at 6:52 AM on April 21 [2 favorites]

Doctor Who ... the last few episodes of David Tennant and then pretty much all of Matt Smith.

I seriously have not been so consistently moved to tears by a show.

I do not cry easily.
posted by McSockerson The Great at 6:57 AM on April 21 [1 favorite]

This is a bit hard, because in my experience, this only happens when you're really invested in the characters and know the backstory. So it's hard to just recommend certain episodes.

That said:

The second-to-last episode of Six Feet Under took me three sittings to get through because it was just so gut-wrenching and emotionally raw.

The second-to-last episode of the third season of Game of Thrones.

The last episode of the first half of the fourth season of Battlestar Galactica.

Mad Men has at least one episode like this pretty much every season.
posted by lunasol at 7:05 AM on April 21

I'm surprised no one has mentioned Sons of Anarchy. It's brutal and frequently over the top, but there have been quite a few episodes that have layed me out emotionally. Particularly "Laying Pipe" and "A Mother's Work" were very, very hard to deal with.
posted by teleri025 at 7:15 AM on April 21 [1 favorite]

It depends on what you mean by "emotionally harrowing."

One Litre of Tears left me emotionally drained and upset, but it wasn't anything horrifying, which I can't make out from your description if it is what you're aiming at.
posted by SollosQ at 7:15 AM on April 21

I'm surprised no one has mentioned Sons of Anarchy. It's brutal and frequently over the top, but there have been quite a few episodes that have layed me out emotionally. Particularly "Laying Pipe" and "A Mother's Work" were very, very hard to deal with.

I thought about putting SOA on my list, but find it is all too frequently a show that puts in shocking moments for the sake of shock value alone, so it is hard, for me at least, to get all that emotionally invested in any character or plotline since the hand of the writer is so frequently visible.

That said, SOA's entire second season was fantastic and several levels above anything the show has done since (and absolutely fits the "emotionally harrowing" criteria), so it would be a good choice here for a specific run of a show to seek out. The Season 1 episode "The Sleep of Babies" also fits.
posted by The Gooch at 7:31 AM on April 21

The Shield. Rarely light, always tense and emotionally draining.
posted by smd at 7:46 AM on April 21 [1 favorite]

I had to watch Wallander with at least a week between episodes because I found it so harrowing. But it's a fantastic series, Kenneth Branagh is brilliant as Wallander.
posted by sadtomato at 7:56 AM on April 21

I'm surprised that nobody has mentioned Wonderland yet. It was brutal! ABC cancelled it after 2 episodes, but apparently all 8 episodes aired on DirecTV.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 9:37 AM on April 21 [1 favorite]

It's an easy, emotional cry, but Cold Case does a thing at the end where they wrap up the story with music and it seems to be specifically intended to pull at heart strings. It always works for me.
posted by Vaike at 9:44 AM on April 21 [2 favorites]

Band of Brothers
Black Mirror
Little Dorrit
The Walking Dead
posted by xammerboy at 9:47 AM on April 21

So many fantastic suggestions, thanks everyone! I think I'm going with Red Riding Hood and then Top of the Lake for the slow-burn bad feels.
posted by naju at 10:16 AM on April 21

Spartacus. It starts out pretty bad but by the end of the first episode I was hooked. So many feelings.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:23 AM on April 21

The last season of The Shield destroyed me. Far more than The Wire or Breaking Bad. YMMV.
posted by eurasian at 10:27 AM on April 21 [1 favorite]

I forgot Brotherhood. That show will chew you up and spit you out.
posted by xammerboy at 10:36 AM on April 21

naju, re: Chocolate Pickle's recommendation for Madoka--looks like you're from the Bay Area; in this case, you can stream the show free on Crunchyroll and
posted by Tsukushi at 12:25 PM on April 21 [1 favorite]

The Practice definitely fits your demands. Still today sometimes my mind floats to episodes that I saw more than 10 years ago, I just can't accept some of the endings.
posted by antares at 1:11 PM on April 21

The Shield is the first show that really wrecked me.

I'd also Nth The Wire, Breaking Bad, and some early parts of 24, House, and Battlestar Galactica (if the suckitude of the middle and/or later seasons don't just ruin the whole thing for you).

But the topper... Jurassic Bark. A little bit of my soul died that day. I just got a little misty going to Wikipedia to copy this link.
posted by JimBJ9 at 1:20 PM on April 21

Grey's Anatomy is not, by any means, good television but basically every episode and certainly every season finale was emotional/emotionally manipulative. Lots of tears shed over 9 seasons.
posted by Flamingo at 1:42 PM on April 21

I am still having Lewis-Black style conniptions because there were only two mentions of The Walking Dead and the first one was 44 posts down.

I have never watched a show as gut-wrenchingly morally ambiguous and horrifying about the human condition as that show. It's a widely-repeated...thing...that the show's title has little to do with the zombies, which are really a backstop for a complex study in what happens when Things Just Fall Apart.
posted by Thistledown at 1:47 PM on April 21 [3 favorites]

It's not a series but On the 8th Day is available on Youtube. Have fun!
posted by quadog at 10:41 PM on April 21

Breaking Bad, Deadwood, Game of Thrones, In Treatment, Rectify and Top of the Lake all fit the bill for me.
posted by homunculus at 12:38 AM on April 22

Despite being an otherwise silly and upbeat show, Scrubs knew how to throw unexpected punches to the gut.
posted by schmod at 5:46 AM on April 22 [2 favorites]

Not sure if you'll accept a cringe-comedy for this, but for me Lisa Kudrow's The Comeback was - while funny - incredibly harrowing throughout. Definitely a score for overall misanthropy.
posted by Mchelly at 11:40 AM on April 22

So I just watched Accused, series two, episode two, "Stephen's Story".

Ay ay ay ay ay.
posted by flabdablet at 12:16 PM on April 22

Band of Brothers. Every minute.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 1:38 PM on April 22

And nthing The Wire.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 1:38 PM on April 22

Outside of the US, the Swedish version of Wallander and the French drama Engrenages both have very upsetting episodes/story arcs.

Engrenagesis available with English subtitles on the BBC4 site under the name Spiral. If you're in the US you can use a VPN like Tunnel Bear to access BBC videos.

My, uh, cat downloaded Wallander from somewhere but I'm sure you can get DVDs with English subs.
posted by desjardins at 1:47 PM on April 22 [2 favorites]

Breaking Bad had a few episodes that had me pacing around the room and swearing...more intense than emotionally harrowing but pretty close. Six Feet Under and the Sopranos both left me depressed on Sunday nights in their original runnings, more so with Six Feet Under which at one point came after the Sopranos.

True Detective has the same pacing-around biting-your-knuckles thing going as Breaking Bad, with a lot more concentrated horribleness since they have to cover so much ground, though they both deal in similar gut-punching themes involving children and innocence for example, on occasion.

Homeland is very gut-wrenching to be sure.

I haven't even seen the end of the first season of "True Detective" though, and I haven't watched any of Game of Thrones yet either. That show definitely challenges the viewer's expectations and desires and drags you out tortuously in anticipation of justice in a typical unjust shit-box universe
posted by aydeejones at 8:24 PM on April 22

Another vote for Game of Thrones, but here's a twist. If you want to make it even more emotionally harrowing (I don't know why one would, but go on with your bad self) remember to keep in mind that the state of medicine in Westeros. A lot of other shows operate in a universe where regardless of the period, if a character survives long enough to get medical attention, they have a near 100% chance of making a full recovery no matter how grave their injuries were.

Game of Thrones doesn't do that. Injuries carry over episode to episode not just as a plot device. It makes the casual violence suffered by the redshirt characters really hit home where it otherwise wouldn't.
posted by Spiced Out Calvin Coolidge at 8:27 AM on April 23 [3 favorites]

Question about Madoka Magica. The art style looks kinda cutesy. Is it really crushing though? I feel like I've heard this sort of thing before, not necessarily about Madoka, but another anime series which I believe is post-apocalyptic, and starts out really cute and light but then a few episodes in becomes the BLEAKEST THING EVER. If anyone knows what I'm talking about, that'd be cool.
posted by naju at 2:15 PM on April 23

The Madoka art style is actually a plot point. So is the strange architecture in the first two episodes. It's subtle. (I could explain it, but it's a huge spoiler. The series doesn't reveal it until the 11th episode.)

Yeah, it's supposed to look cutesy; that's partly because this is a subversion of a standard anime trope (magical girl). It's in the tradition of shows like "Card Captor Sakura" and "Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha" among many others, which usually are very cutesy.

So Madoka starts out the same way, right up until the horror aspects kick in, in the 3rd episode.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:06 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]

Lars von Triers' The Kingdom will keep you up afterwards.
posted by benzenedream at 12:31 AM on April 26

Just thought of another series that mr. muffins and I had to stop watching: Enlightened, starring Laura Dern. I was enjoying the show a lot but it was by turns funny and bleak and a bit too uneven for my husband to really get into.

Actually a fair amount of Mike White's output is excellent for emotionally honest/raw/awkward drama -- I realize you didn't ask for films, but The Good Girl and Chuck & Buck are some of my absolute favorite movies for their bravery in depicting people navigating through tense and emotionally difficult situations.
posted by trunk muffins at 11:07 AM on April 26 [2 favorites]

Only just seen this, but Huff hit alot harder than expected and I've not seen it mentioned yet
posted by chrispy108 at 1:30 PM on April 27

Criminal Minds has been mentioned, but for me the most harrowing arc is Season 4, Episodes 18, 25 and 26, then Season 5, Episodes 1, 8 and 9.

So horrific.

I'd recommend the ones in between, as it's a story mentioned in the background, but those are the main episodes of the arc.

Season 4, Episode 21 is really dark one-off episode,
posted by chrispy108 at 1:39 PM on April 27

Breaking Bad to the point I took an extended break while Netflix was getting the last season (For me, it was the unrepentant, unrelenting grimness). Also there's one episode of House (with the pregnant 12 year old diver) that hit me unexpectedly hard, especially for the way they (IMLTHO) avoided going blatantly for the heartstrings.
posted by Samizdata at 9:36 AM on May 7

And, yeah, I realize I am a little late to the game, but my "OCD" prevents me from watching series I don't catch from the beginning, so I am working my way through it on Netflix.
posted by Samizdata at 9:38 AM on May 7

The second season of Rectify started tonight: Rectify: Running with the Bull
posted by homunculus at 1:22 AM on June 20

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